Student Activities for Shays' Rebellion

by Michael Stratford

Shays' Rebellion was the Revolutionary War version of Wall Street's occupiers. It began in 1786 because an indifferent Massachusetts state legislature refused to give credit to bare-subsistence farmers. The Shays' group went the "99-Percenters" one better: Led by Continental Captain Daniel Shays, they formed their own militia and declared war. This miniature revolution fought on our soil is a fascinating chapter in American history. You can use several good student activities to accentuate the economic and political conflicts.

Because and So Graphic Organizer

A good clarifying activity to use in teaching Shays' Rebellion, since it was the result of a complex chain of historical events, is a cause-effect graphic organizer. This double-sided chart -- labeled BECAUSE/SO -- links together the economic and political happenings that brought about the minor revolution. Begin with the proposition, "Because the government had no money, So soldiers were not paid," and continue the "Because/So" pattern until you have involved the farmers, bankers, merchants and the Massachusetts legislature in the chain of events, ending with the crushing of the rebellion.

Role Card Discussion

Another activity is a simulated economic discussion involving the principal players in the Rebellion: farmers, merchants, government officials and bankers. Divide the class into two groups, the economically prosperous and the impoverished. Create role cards with information about and quoted material from each of the players, or characters. Each student gets one card to share with the group. Each group creates and presents an economic plan based on the perspective of their characters’ economic situation and advocates its acceptance. If one group rejects the other’s plan, they must give sound reasons for their rejection. This increases student awareness of the participants' motivations and sharpens their brainstorming and persuasive skills.

A Pardon for Shays?

A year after the rebellion, Shays petitioned John Hancock and the Massachusetts legislation for a pardon. A strong classroom activity is a debate with the following topic: "Should Daniel Shays be pardoned?" Six students form two teams and enact the roles of historical figures in the two sides of the debate: Shays, Hancock and one other legislator advocate for the pardon, while Samuel Adams and two legislators oppose it. Your remaining students assume the role of the Massachusetts legislation and vote on the outcome. Be sure to follow up with history's real outcome.

Chain of Debt

Even more involving is the excellent chain of debt role play: Students play indigent farmers, tax gatherers, storekeepers and Boston merchants. Give each student pennies -- farmers and storekeepers get only a few -- and have them enact a scene where a farmer or storekeeper tries to barter goods with paper credit. A lively clash should ensue between the debtors and the merchant who demands hard cash and calls a tax collector. It's economic debate turned kinesthetic.

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